Ethanol Fuels City's Rail Suit

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 15, 2008 | Go to article overview

Ethanol Fuels City's Rail Suit


Byline: Tom Ramstack, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A lawsuit by the city of Alexandria over the safety of a new ethanol transfer station puts the city at the forefront of a rising tide of disputes over how alcohol should be used to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

In Alexandria and other communities nationwide, some residents are more concerned about their homes getting burned down in an accidental fire than federal policy on use of the highly flammable form of alcohol.

In April, Norfolk Southern Railway started operating an ethanol transfer station in Alexandria.

The city of Alexandria responded by filing a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, which uses the station to transfer ethanol between trains and trucks for distribution to motorists. The railroad countersued to win a right to continue operating the facility.

Ethanol is distilled from agricultural crops, particularly corn.

As gasoline prices climbed in recent years, Congress ordered oil refiners to blend more ethanol into the nation's fuel supply.

The dispute involving Norfolk Southern's Van Dorn Street rail facility in Alexandria presents potentially far-reaching issues.

Rail is the only practical means to move large quantities of ethanol from many production facilities to distribution points near the blending facilities, said Robin Chapman, Norfolk Southern spokesman.

The ethanol in Alexandria is destined to be transferred to trucks for storage in tanks at Newington and Fairfax City, then trucked to distributors for sale to motorists.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, the city is claiming Norfolk Southern should be subject to local and state safety laws that would impose new regulations on the railroad to prevent fires or explosions. The city bases its authority over Norfolk Southern on Virginia's haulage permits, which railroads obtain for the right to carry freight through the state.

Norfolk Southern says local and state jurisdiction is pre-empted by federal law. Congress reserves regulatory authority over railroads to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Alexandria filed a second petition before the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that rules on disputes with railroads.

The city seeks a declaratory judgment saying the transfer station is a facility operated by shippers, not the railroad.

The distinction is important to decide whether the federal government or local government can regulate its safety compliance.

If it is a railroad facility, the federal government decides the rules Norfolk Southern must follow. If it is a shippers' facility, the local and state governments can decide.

A loss for Norfolk Southern before the Surface Transportation Board could subject railroads nationwide to a patchwork of local safety regulations.

The lawsuits are pending before the U.S. District Court and the Surface Transportation Board.

Alexandria's lawsuit is one of the first to challenge the authority of corporations to operate ethanol facilities but is unlikely to be the last, according to Austin Durrer, spokesman for Rep.

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